Spotlight of attention

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A note for Lesson no. 3, "Little Brains Wire Themselves to Their World," in Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context from page 53‌ is:

Your adult brain can effortlessly focus on one thing and ignore others, similar to a spotlight in the darkness.

A "spotlight" is a metaphor for how you pay attention to some things but ignore others. Your brain can move your "spotlight" around, so that anything that is illuminated by its beam is processed by the brain, whereas anything in the darkness outside the beam is ignored as unimportant. This model of attention was developed by cognitive psychologist Michael Posner and his colleagues to explain how your brain can shift attention to different objects or in particular regions of space, while not necessarily moving your eyes.[1] You can try this easily by fixating on these words, but shifting your "spotlight" of attention to what is around the words (the objects in your peripheral vision).


  1. Posner, Michael I., Charles R. Snyder, and Brian J. Davidson. 1980. "Attention and the Detection of Signals." Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 109 (2): 160. Harvard